John McClain: The greatest college coach of all time has a history with the Houston Oilers

TAMPA, FL – JANUARY 09: Head coach Nick Saban (L) and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian of the Alabama Crimson Tide stand on the sideline during the second half of the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game against the Clemson Tigers at Raymond James Stadium on January 9, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

John McClain: The greatest college coach of all time has a history with the Houston Oilers

With Texas A&M playing at Alabama on Saturday, this seems like an ideal time to disclose how the greatest coach in college football history got his start in the NFL.

After the strike-abbreviated 1987 season in which the Oilers ended a six-year playoff drought, coach Jerry Glanville needed a secondary coach to replace the retired Tom Bettis. The job came down to a pair of defensive assistants – Pete Carroll and Nick Saban.

Carroll coached the Vikings’ defensive backs. Saban was defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Michigan State. Both were interviewed by Glanville and his assistants at the Oilers’ offices on Fannin.

Saban was hired over Carroll because Glanville liked how smart, tough, demanding and serious he was about the job. Glanville wanted his defensive backs to be ferocious.

During his two seasons in Houston, Saban was so hard on his defensive backs they called him “Nick Satan.”

At the team’s facility on Holly Hall, Saban was so serious as he went about his business he was known as “Joyless Nick.”

But when Saban and the coaches got together away from work, he was known as “Nicky Martini” for obvious reasons.

Under Glanville, the Oilers’ defense was earning a reputation as the meanest and dirtiest – and one of the best — in the NFL. The Astrodome became known as “The House of Pain.”

Glanville wanted a secondary coach who could handle the team’s wild-and-crazy defensive backs. He may have been the wildest and craziest head coach in league history, and most of the defensive backs took their cue from him. Saban was like a wrangler trying to tame wild horses.

The late Mike Holovak, who was vice president of player personnel when Saban was hired, liked to sit in position meetings and watch the assistants coach their players.

After monitoring a few of Saban’s position meetings during the 1988 season, Holovak told me how impressed he was with the new secondary coach. He said Saban was tough on his players in meetings and wasn’t shy about yelling to make a point, but they listened to him and took what he taught them to the practice field.

That was an improvement over the reaction Saban got when he first started meeting with his players. Early on, there were times when they would turn their chairs around and have their backs facing him. They thought he was treating them like college players, and they didn’t like it.

Saban was a disciplinarian who didn’t put up with bs. He was strict with his players.

Back then, reporters who covered the team could enter the facility and sit in front of a player’s locker and wait for him to get out of a meeting to be interviewed or to just shoot the breeze before practice.

One time I went into the locker room during team meetings and found cornerback Richard Johnson, a five-year veteran, sitting and reading. I asked what he was doing at his locker during meetings. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Satan kicked me out for eating sunflower seeds.”

Eventually, Saban earned their respect. They respected his knowledge and how hard he worked. They came to realize he was trying to make them better – and the defense better – by coaching them hard. They liked the results the defense was getting from them.

Saban helped develop a lot of talent. Besides Johnson, some of the defensive backs he coached during his two seasons were cornerbacks Steve Brown, Patrick Allen and Cris Dishman as well as safeties Keith Bostic, Jeff Donaldson and Bubba McDowell. Saban played a significant role in their development, and they became one of the best secondaries in the league.

“Nick was so serious when he was coaching, but he was on a staff with Glanville, and Jerry liked to have fun by doing and saying outrageous things,” a former assistant coach told me recently. “Jerry loved to create controversy by stirring things up, and that sure wasn’t Nick’s style. I don’t think Nick ever got used to the kind of atmosphere we had.

“I know Nick’s been complimentary of Glanville because Jerry gave him his first NFL job, but we weren’t surprised when he left to take over his own program.”

A former defensive player told me, “We knew Nick was a hell of a coach, and college coaching seemed to be more of his cup of tea because he drove his players so hard. That works better in college than the pros. After a while, that kind of coaching can get tiresome and start to go in one ear and out the other. Nick didn’t stick around long enough for that to happen, though.

“And I can tell you this: When he left, everybody had respect for him and his coaching ability, but I never heard anyone say something like, ‘Man, Saban’s going to be one of the best coaches in history.’”

The Oilers made the playoffs in each of Saban’s two seasons, including a wild card victory at Cleveland after the 1988 season. The week before that playoff game that would be Marty Schottenheimer’s last as the Browns’ coach, Glanville bit into a Dawg biscuit for the Chronicle and Post photographers, and the AP picked up the picture and sent it around the country.

Fans in Cleveland were so infuriated at Glanville he got death threats and had to have a security guard posted outside his hotel room and wore a bulletproof vest to the game, where he was surrounded by security guards.

Needless to say, that wasn’t Saban’s style.

After the Oilers lost to the Steelers in the wild card round the next year, owner Bud Adams didn’t re-sign Glanville. He was hired by Atlanta and replaced by Jack Pardee.

Saban left the Oilers to become head coach at the University of Toledo, where he would stay for one season.

I’ll never forget telling Mark Berman, sports director at KRIV, that Saban would never make it as a college coach. He was a deep thinker who was seldom interviewed and seemed so reserved I didn’t think he’d ever be able to recruit.

Based on what I’d witnessed watching Saban for two seasons, I couldn’t imagine him going into a recruit’s living room and convincing the prospect and his parents to play for his college program. I thought he was much more suited for coaching in the NFL.

When Saban left Toledo after that 9-2 season to become defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick at Cleveland, I remember telling Berman, “See, I told you Saban would never make it as a college coach.”

(John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on

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